I was sketching this fellow and as usual, asked him to smile. He said, “When I was 15, my grandmother told me, ‘You do not have an attractive smile.'”
“I went 20 years without smiling.”
I said, “What a mean old lady. What a cruel thing to do to a kid.”
Parents and grandchildren get this wrong sometimes.
They have been known to shrink the self-worth in a child, perhaps from a wrong-headed conviction that it was their calling to drive the child to achievement rather than to encourage him or her in that direction.
I’m thinking of my friend Kathy.
As long as she can remember, her mother told people, “Kathy is emotional and sensitive.” That meant that siblings should tiptoe around her, that her feelings were always on edge, that outbursts were never far away.
It was like a mantra: “Emotional and sensitive.” It was as though her mother had been informed of this character trait by the attending physician in the delivery ward the day Kathy arrived. It was doctrine in their household and if Kathy heard it once, she heard it hundreds of times.
And then one day, she found the smoking gun.
“I got out my baby book to do some research for a personal essay I was writing,” says Kathy in her book “Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing.” (Kathy Rhodes, Westbow Press, 2013)
It was the typical baby book, says Kathy–pink satin, flowers on the front, tinged with brown stains from age.
Kathy opened it, scanned the pages, enjoyed the usual photos of herself as a child–with her first puppy, in a stroller, her daddy holding her.
And then on page fourteen, she found it.
Her mother had inserted the horoscope for the day Kathy was born. Among the circle and wedges of the astrological design, Kathy’s mom had circled her birth date with a brown crayon. It read:
September–Virgo (Virgin)–Keen. Alert mind. Introspective. Emotional and sensitive.
“Well. Now I knew,” writes Kathy. “I’d lived my whole life under this umbrella for no more reason than there it was, written in my baby book, under my horoscope, so it had to be true. Mama had read it and believed it. And scooped me up and put all the pieces of me in that category and held me to it all my life.”
She wonders, “Why couldn’t she have described me as keen and with an alert mind?”
When I asked her permission to share this, Kathy wanted to emphasize that her mother was a woman of faith and accomplishment, who did ten thousand things right and only the rare occasional one somewhat off the grid.
Even the best of mamas get this wrong sometimes.
I’ve told how my mother set me and my little sister down at the kitchen table when I was five, gave us pencil and paper and told us sternly to “sit there and draw!” Her main interest was in getting us out of her way as she went about her endless chores, with three children in school and three small ones at home. I remember that moment at the table, when with my little sis across from me, I discovered that I love to draw.
That was seven decades ago and I’m still drawing.
Pray for the mamas you know. They wield such influence over the little ones.
The wonderful Ruth Bell Graham voiced a prayer for all mamas, particularly those who, like my amazing mom when I was a precocious five-year-old, need a little more wisdom and a lot more strength….
“God, bless all young mothers at the end of the day,
Kneeling wearily with each small one to hear them pray.
Too tired to rise when done…and yet they do.
Longing just to sleep one whole night through.
Too tired to sleep…
Too tired to pray…
Bless all young mothers at the close of the day.”